Search Menu
Casey Schmidt

Whether he’s sprinting to snatch a football kicking tee off the field in front of 30,000 frenzied New Mexico State University (NMSU) fans or edging along a remote valley or hillside near Las Cruces, New Mexico, “Wave” the Border Collie is soaking it all in. The 8-year-old dog is owned by Steve Stochaj, who is the NMSU School of Electrical and Computer Engineering department chair.

On game days at the university, Wave gets the crowd going and helps keep the excitement up by running to retrieve football kicking tees, pumping up the crowd. Neither Wave or Stochaj’s passion is limited to the university. The pair has worked together to get titles in AKC Agility, Rally, Obedience, Tracking, Trick Dog, Dock Diving. Wave also passed the Canine Good Citizen test, and is a member of the Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue organization.

His dynamic involvement is what earned him the 2023 Award for Canine Excellence in the Exemplary Companion category. Each year, the AKC Humane Fund awards five dogs who do extraordinary things in the service of humankind in different categories: Uniformed Service K-9, Service Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, Therapy Dogs, and Exemplary Companions like Wave. Dogs in this category are without formal training or certification that have nonetheless distinguished themselves in some way and have made a meaningful contribution to their owners or communities. And this local celebrity sure has made his mark.

Part of a Game-Day Tradition

Steve Stochaj

Wave is the third NMSU “Wonder Dog,” a tradition started in 1996 by the Division I NMSU football team, the “Aggies.” The Wonder Dog retrieves the tee that the football is positioned on before it’s kicked. The Border Collie mainly known for his lightning-fast sprints to retrieve the tees at NMSU’s Aggie Memorial Stadium. After the kickoff, the referee blows the whistle to signal the end of the play. This is Stochaj’s signal to slip off Wave’s leash, and off he goes, sprinting out to retrieve the tee and bring it back to the sideline. As Wave runs onto the field, the announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Wave the Wonder Dog!”

Wave has been known to glance up when he hears his name, and he’s not the only one who recognizes chants of “Wave!” from the stands. NMSU’s The Aggie Shop even has a “Wave” licensed t-shirt as part of their merchandise.

Wave is serious about his job, and leaves everything on the field. Often, with many retrieves, he’s left bite marks in the tees. “Kicking tees are rubber, [and] they are not very durable,” Stochaj says. “After one game where Wave had 11 retrieves, the edges of the tee had a few puncture marks from his teeth. He has fun doing it.” Stochaj says that every season, he brings NMSU’s Athletic Director of Equipment Operations, Paulina Mihelich, a few new tees.

A Mini Celebrity On- and Off-Campus

Wave isn’t Stochaj’s first dog to take on the football kicking tee retrieval duties. When he started in 2021, Wave took over for Stochaj’s other Border Collie, “Striking,” who’d held down the job for nearly 10 years.

While Striking and Wave may possess the same football tee retrieval skills, Stochaj says they have different personalities. “Striking was a relatively calm dog,” says Stochaj, “who enjoys company but was a bit aloof. Wave thrives of greeting everyone he meets with hugs and kisses. He has that ‘I’m here’ attitude.” This energy extends off the field too. He’s often recognized off-campus as well, known by spectators and community members alike. He even has his own social media: see ‘Wave the Wonder Dog’ on Facebook.

Nancy Chanover

Player turnover is a surprising part of what Wave faces in his role as Wonder Dog. In all National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) divisions but especially in Division I schools like NMSU, players often transfer in or out. This means that there are often new athletes around, and Stochaj and Wave make a point to get to know each and every one of them.He brings Wave to spring and summer practices, so that the players can get to know the pair and become accustomed Wave on the field.

Stochaj adds that Wave is a small, but important part of the game-day experience. “If Wave can engage a few kids, helps the family stay until the end of the game, and motivates them to come back, he has done his job.”

The Perfect Training Pair

Stochaj has owned Border Collies since 2008. Even after 15 years, he’s still found that he and Wave are the perfect match. “I am a compulsive teacher and Border Collies are compulsive learners,” he says. As a professor, Stochaj finds that the breed’s willingness to learn is perfect for him. Border Collies require mental stimulation and a lot of it — perfect for someone who always wants to teach their dogs new tricks.

Because of Stochaj’s busy schedule, most of the AKC sports that he and Wave do together are closer to come. His summer vacations usually include dog sports and various competitions within a hundred-mile radius. But that doesn’t stop the pair from trying to get training in throughout the rest of the year.

Nancy Chanover

Stochaj says that he does several short training sessions work well throughout the day with his dogs. He tries to squeeze them in in the mornings before breakfast, during his lunchtime, or in the evening after dinner. “It is hard to make time for everything,” he says. He makes it work on his own, both with his time and the tools he has at hand.

“Finding time for group classes is really hard, so I train alone most of the time. I have a piece of turf and lights on the back patio to support early morning and evening practices.”

On the Same Wavelength from the Start

Stochaj got Wave in Sheridan, Wyoming, when he was a puppy. Stochaj initially met his breeder, Margaret Kennedy, at an Agility show at Yellowstone Dog Sports in Red Lodge, Montana. “I really liked Wave’s mother, Karis,” he says. From there he asked to be put on the list for future litters. When he met Wave’s litter, he knew that Wave was meant for him, despite the other puppies present.

“Wave had several sisters who played extremely rough. I remember him coming over to me and sitting on my feet trying to get some relief,” he recalls. “That is when I knew he was the one for me.”Physically, he stood out from the rest of his litter too. The female puppies in the litter were all smooth-coated, where Wave was rough-coated. “He looked like a puffy toy when he was little,” Stochaj laughs.

His name came to Stochaj almost instantly, too. “As a science geek, my first thought for a name was Wavelength,” Stochaj says. He ended up shortening this to “Wave.”

Nancy Chanover

Immediately, Stochaj considered Wave as the next NMSU football tee dog. He began building the foundational skills before he was even a year old, testing him with a variety of challenging distractions, which included band noise, cowbells, ROTC cannon blasts, and crowd noise. Some of this, Stochaj says, can be mitigated with calmness, focus training and exposure, but at some level the dog’s fundamental temperament must handle these stresses. Wave handled it all swimmingly.

Sports Off the Field

While Stochaj and Wave spend a lot of time on the football field, they also do a lot of AKC dog sports. One of the major exercises of the Open Obedience class is the dumbbell retrieve. Stochaj began focusing on retrieving when the puppy was only a few weeks old. By the time he was a year old, he was “doing a good job with dumbbells (plastic, wooden, leather and metal). Wave loves AKC Rally, hence the pair practice on the sideline during a game to get him focused.

From the start, Stochaj also introduced Wave to Search and Rescue work. “By the time he was 4 months old, he was a master at article search and showed a tenacity that is hard to find in dogs of any age,” Stochaj says. Wave went on to pass his air-scent test when he was about 2 years old.

Just as they’d passed the air-scent milestone, Stochaj received a call for a mission in the Gila Wilderness, about 150 miles from their home in Las Cruces. Stochaj admits that he was nervous about bringing Wave to an environment like that, since he was relatively new to SAR. But they went, and Wave proved to be full of surprises.

John Connell

“We stopped to check the GPS while walking through a canyon with a stream running through it. I was watching Wave and noticed he was sniffing around some tall grass in the water. I was just about to tell him to leave it when he stuck his nose in the water and came running to me with something in his mouth. It turned out to be a pair of glasses. That find helped direct resources to the canyon, where the deceased subject was located about 1½ miles upstream.”

Stochaj emphasizes the importance of their connection in everything that they do together. He says that regardless of what they do, their partnership is his top priority. “Of all the sports we compete in, Agility allows teamwork to shine. The connection Wave and I have that allows him to navigate through obstacles at high speed and big distances is thrilling for both of us. After every Agility run, successful or not, Wave runs to hug me to celebrate that bond.”